The Beautiful Struggle

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

Growing up in Baltimore in the 1980s, Ta-Nehisi Coates lived his life on the axis of opportunity. He could have followed his father into the world of higher education and activism. Or he could have followed his brother Big Bill into the streets. This is the stuff memoirs are made of, even in this age of increasingly retractable truths. Coates was just one of eight kids his father had had with four mothers, some within the same year. This was—and is—a world where “fathers were ghosts.”

But Coates’s dad wasn’t just any young dude on the scene. A Vietnam vet and a Black Panther, Paul Coates also founded the publishing company Black Classic Press. This was a man who, womanizing aside, did not fool around. He took a job at Howard University so he could offer his children entrance for free. Young Ta-Nehisi, obviously a reporter-in-training from an early age, sketches a remarkable, blunt portrait of an adolescence filled with danger and the clear-cut choices he was afforded along the way. “The world was filled with great causes,” he writes. “But we died for sneakers stitched by serfs…hats embroidered with the flags of Confederate states.”

A former Time staff writer, Coates might have approached this material with a journalist’s instinct for research. He could have broadened his personal story into a deeper study of Baltimore in the ’80s, or the role Black Classic Press played in our cultural history. But even as he restricts his story to his optimistic father and wayward brother, Coates finds plenty of material. This is a story of chaos, flaws and tragedy. It’s also a love story, dispatched from the front lines of a family.

Coates reads May 27 at McNally-Robinson.

By Ta-Nehisi Coates. Spiegel & Grau, $22.95.